Last week I spent 6 nights at a retreat centre in Devon. The idea of a retreat is to spend some time away from your day to day life, going back to basics, giving you space and time to recharge your batteries and think about your life. Retreat centres are usually quite remote and at this centre we were encouraged to leave behind or turn off any electronic devices, including mobile phones. I took my Kindle on the basis that this was just for reading purposes and there is no way I could go a whole week without reading.
When I got off the train in the nearby town, I sent a message to my nearest and dearest informing them that I would be incommunicado for the next week and then turned off my phone, with a pang of anxiety.
My retreat was a buddhist led women-only week, this centre also has mixed sex retreats and weeks that are just for men. This was the first time I had been on a single-sex retreat. I didn’t choose it on that basis, it was just because the dates suited my plans. We arrived one by one on Sunday afternoon and were shown to our rooms. Mine was basic but comfortable with a single bed, desk and chair, one shelf and a small window overlooking a pretty outdoor seating area. After unpacking my few belongings for the week, I joined some ladies in the living area with the retreat coordinators to await the arrival of the remainder of the group. There would be ten retreatants in total. The two coordinators are volunteers who live at the centre for a whole year, supporting a new group of retreatants every week of the year. They run the centre, keeping it clean and well maintained and tend the gardens with the help of the retreatants and a gardener. They also lead the various practices and sessions that the retreatants take part in and organise visiting teachers.
all ten retreatants had arrived and we had made our introductions, we quickly settled into the routine of the retreat. Mornings started early with a mindful movement session in the garden, followed by a silent meditation in the hall. This was followed by the morning tasks, each retreatant had a task to complete every morning, mine was collecting wood for the log burner which heated the water for the centre. Breakfast was eaten in silence and then there would be a morning meeting at which the silence was broken. The meeting was an opportunity to share our feelings and thoughts and to learn about the structure for the day. The rest of the morning was usually taken up with gardening up in the beautiful vegetable patch, overlooking the river. We all had specific tasks that we had chosen in the garden. Not being much of a gardener I decided to weed the vegetable beds. Working in silence gave plenty of space for reflection and moving meditation. At midday there would be a guided meditation in the hall followed by lunch. The menu was vegetarian, except for lunchtimes, where each day, two retreatants would cook a vegan lunch for everyone. When it was my turn to cook, I made a mushroom risotto with brown rice. I was apprehensive about cooking for 12 people and getting the quantities right, but we did a pretty good job and served up a tasty meal. Washing up after mealtimes was another task that was shared between retreatants on a daily basis.
In the afternoon there was personal practice time for 3 hours. This was a chance to reflect on our retreat experience, to read books from the retreat centre library, walk in the beautiful grounds, relax in a hammock or in our rooms, swim in the river or the open-air swimming pool. Before supper there would be a session with a visiting buddhist teacher, which would usually be a Q&A about various aspects of meditation practice. Supper was a DIY affair and followed by an evening silent meditation. Silence would then continue through the evening and until the morning meeting the next day.
On Wednesday there was a whole day of silence, which meant that we were silent from Tuesday at 8.30pm all the way through until Thursday at 9am. I had been looking forward to this aspect of the retreat, as I have enjoyed previous retreats with periods of silence and found them relaxing and peaceful. I was taken by surprise with the silence this time, it didn’t really feel like silence at all. I hadn’t realised how busy my mind had become. There was a constant running commentary going on in my head, that I hadn’t really noticed in the day to day business of ‘real life’. In the morning on Wednesday I felt as though there would never be any silence, but once I had observed the busyness of my mind, I felt that I could work with it and by the afternoon, I had reached a place where it seemed like my thoughts had slowed down and there was more spaciousness.
On reflection, I can see that my mind had been getting busier and busier over the last few weeks and months, but that I hadn’t really noticed. I had been running group meditations but neglecting my own practice and this silence had brought that into focus. The lesson I’m taking from this is the importance of leading from my own practice.
Overall, this was a great week, the main benefit being the chance to reconnect with my own practice. Since I got home I’ve been practicing every morning for between 20 and 40 minutes and I intend to keep this up. I feel energised and renewed and ready to face the ‘real world’ again.
I was also pleasantly surprised about the experience of communal living with a group of women. This was my first experience of an all-female group and there was an ease and familiarity that came very early in the week, as well as a feeling of mutual respect and support.
If you are thinking of trying a retreat, I would encourage you to give it a go, it might surprise you how much you will take away from it. There are lots of secular and shorter retreats available and lots of beautiful centres around the country and abroad, depending on your budget. There are also some retreats that are free or subsidised, contact me if you’d like the details of these or the retreat centre where I stayed.
Jo is a director of Mindful Future and an accredited Breathworks Mindfulness Teacher. Breathworks is one of the leading Mindfulness organisations in the UK